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The early morning light of spring staved off some of the winter chill that still lingered, and Katniss felt exhilarated by the crisp morning air. She was smiling when she came out of the forest and saw Gale waiting for her at their spot. He seemed equally lost in thought and didn't notice her until she was only a few yards away from him.
"Hey, you better be careful or a wild animal could get you," she called with a smile.
Gale shook his head and laughed, "I'll take my chances."
She jumped down beside him. "You might want to reconsider. I was practically on top of you." Gale's laughter caught and turned into a small cough. "I could have shot you," she looked at him seriously, as if trying to communicate the danger.
"Well," Gale said, leaning in slightly, "most wild animals don't have bows, so, I'll still take my chances."
He got a laugh from her this time. She adjusted her position and looked out. "This is the first nice weather we've had in a while."
"Yeah," Gale said, "it's appropriate."
"Appropriate?" Katniss turned to Gale, her brow wrinkled with confusion. When she looked at him, he was holding a cookie.
She looked so uncomprehendingly for a few moments that Gale was almost worried he'd gotten her birthday wrong. They'd never exchanged anything before, but he was certain today was her birthday. He'd asked her mother and had Rory ask her sister, just to be sure.
"But…why…Gale, what's this?"
"This is a cookie," he held it up to her to examine as proof and a smile started to tug at her lips.
"You didn't have to," she insisted.
"I know," he said looking out at the mountains again, "but I wanted an excuse to eat a cookie."
"Oh, I have to share it?"
"You better share it," he looked back at her, "and plus, sixteen is kind of a big deal."
"Yeah," Gale said finally the cookie to her. Some of the families with a bit of extra money to spare would throw parties for girls when they turned sixteen, to present them to society, to say they were ready to be courted and married. Gale found himself glad Katniss wasn't having such a party.
She smiled and took a bite, a few crumbs chipping off and falling on her. "Oh my god, is there chocolate in this?" Gale nodded. She closed her eyes for a second, savoring the sugar and chocolate, and then passed the cookie back to Gale. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
"Don't mention it," he shrugged, but she put her hand on his and caught his eye. He held her gaze for only a second before taking his bite.
"This is really good," she said, mouth still partially full, "oh, it didn't cost you too much, did it?"
"Nope," Gale said, looking away, and gesturing that she could have the rest as she tried to pass it to him. Katniss couldn't tell if he was being honest, and she knew he'd never tell her what it cost him.
"So I guess this means I've got to get you something extra nice for your birthday," she immediately began to calculate, always determined to make their relationship even. That's what being partners meant to her.
"No, Katniss, this isn't about-"
"Ahh," she silenced him playfully, "if sixteen is a big deal, then eighteen certainly-" but this time she silenced herself. Eighteen. Gale turned eighteen this year. It'd be his last year in the reaping, but also the year with his highest chance. Gale probably had his name in more than anybody—the chances of his name being chosen. She tried not to think of it. She crunched her last bite to mask her silence, but she knew he was thinking it too. She gulped almost audibly and recovered, "so I should get you what, like two cookies?" She knocked his shoulder.
He smiled, and only after knowing him for so long did she catch that this smile was a second slower than his natural ones. This one took a bit more effort. Gale'd signed up for more tesserae than ever before this year. His mother had gotten sick, and Vick and Rory were starting to grow just like he had. Each of those boys could eat more than Katniss's whole family combined, though they rarely got to. She wished she could think of something to make him feel better the way he always seemed to be able to do for her, but as she searched her brain for something to say, the air disappeared in a violent sound.
Katniss didn't have time to ask what it was before she knew-the mine.
Gale knew it too and was already on his feet. They left behind their weapons and water on their stone as they both fled in the direction of town.
Katniss was choked with fear and memories of her father dying in the mine explosion, fighting them off more than the forest underbrush and they flew to the fence. Neither stopped to care or look if anyone saw them. Katniss grabbed his hand as he helped her through, and didn't let go, for his support as much as he speed, and they rushed to the mine entrance.
"Mr. Tucker," Gale found his voice before Katniss could, "what happened? What's wrong?"
The old mine foreman grabbed Gale's shoulder gruffly and solemnly looked him in the eye. Mr. Tucker had been a good friend of Gale's father and knew him well. "The elevator collapsed."
Gale let out a deep breath.
"What does that mean, Gale? What does that mean?" She was holding his hand tightly. All she saw were explosions in her mind.
Gale took a moment to sort his thoughts and fears and then looked at Katniss steadily. "It means the mines didn't collapse but the men are trapped down there."
Katniss didn't understand what that meant. "But what…what…." She spoke like a fish trying to breath out of water. Gale squeezed her hand reassuringly and took her face with his other before letting go. She watching him throw off his jacket and run to the opening of the mine with several other men, all who'd gathered to help.
"Katniss, Katniss," She didn't know how many times Mr. Tucker had said her name before she finally heard him. "Go get your mother, okay? We'll probably need her."
"What, my mom?" She didn't understand why her mom would be helpful here.
"Yes, we'll need her help when we get them out."
"I'm not sure…I don't know how my mom will help."
"We might need a healer." He was starting to sound annoyed.
"Right. I mean, I don't know how she'll handle…"
"She can handle it however she has to. Just get her here."
Katniss gulped and nodded and then ran.
There hadn't been a mining accident since the one that claimed her and Gale's father's lives. Even though it had happened almost four years ago, Katniss was shaking as badly as if it were the same day. Fresh horror ripped through her mind and she felt like she was trying to breath air as thick as coal dust—but she wasn't. The air out here was clear, and it was time she got ahold of herself. If Katniss couldn't keep it together, there was no way her mother'd be able to. The woman had hardly functioned since her father died, and when Katniss thought about how little respect she had for her because of it, it steeled her nerves to control herself. And, she realized, Gale's father had died in that same accident, and he didn't hesitate to help. He didn't let his fear hold him back, if he had any, he couldn't, he'd have to start working down there soon, after he turned eighteen, and Katniss had to fight back tears as she realized threat Gale faced wasn't the number of names in Reaping, it was
every day after. Every day he'd get up and work like a slave, just waiting for there to be another accident.
Katniss shoved these thoughts aside as she reached her house. "Mom!" she called, throwing open the door. "Mom, are you here? We have to go to the mines!"
Katniss spun and searched, but her mother wasn't there.
"Your mother already left."
"What?" Katniss pivoted, searching for the voice. It was the old lady who lived next door, Mrs. Fink.
"As soon as the sirens started, she left." Mrs. Fink must have seen the confusion on her face. "To the mines, dear, she went with your sister."
Katniss almost knocked the old lady as she ran back to town. Her thoughts flew past her like the streets she passed, blurs of names on her spent breath—what? —mom?—Prim? —Gale?
She was panting by the time she made it back. A line of men surrounded the elevator opening, talking as pointing as they tried to figure things out.
"Have you," she nearly choked on her words, "have you seen my mom?" she asked the first person to pass her.
"The healer, right? She's over there," Katniss followed the pointed finger and didn't even remember if she'd spoken to a man of a woman. She gulped a breath and ran.
"Mom? Prim?!" She rushed to the side of one of the shacks nearest the mine opening.
"Prim, water now, and I need some more bandages!" Katniss's mom spoke shakily, but people listened. A few other women, wives of miners, rushed about, ill practiced but well intended, trying to help. "Alright, Morris, I need to you to try and move your shoulder." She looked a middle aged man in the eye as he held a bloodied rag to his head, "on the count of three…"
"Prim!" Katniss jogged up to her sister, "what's going on?"
"There's been a mining accident."
Katniss tried not to roll her eyes, "I know, but, what are you and mom doing?"
"Helping. Here, take this to that man over there," Prim pushed a stack of bandages in her sister's hands and gestured to a guy whose shirt was covered in blood. Another woman was helping him take it off. Katniss recognized him, he was the father of one of her classmates from school. "Clean off the blood, okay? So mom and I can see if he needs any stitches."
Katniss obeyed, trying to process the information. Her mother and Prim weren't freaking out…They got the mines out…everything was going to be okay. She knew there was a thought forming in her head, trying to reach her, but she was too focused on the woman fussing about her and the men moaning, so she focused on her task.
"Hi, Mr. Jessup, right?" she said with a soft smile as she sat down next to the man. He nodded through his grimaced face. "How are you feeling?"
The man let out a deep sigh. "Believe it or not, I've had worse days," he said with a sort-of shrug.
Katniss almost laughed and looked at him kindly. "I'm glad you made it out," she said dabbing to his wound as he talked to her. She only partially listened as she shuffled through her own thoughts and listened to the other women fussing about her.
"We should have known it was the support shaft," Mr. Jessup muttered, Katniss assumed mostly to himself, as he washed the towel on bowl of water. "Not the actual elevator. Damn thing collapsed…"
"I don't know what they're doing to do about the others," the woman next to her, Bess, said as she attended some man's knee.
There were people still down there? Katniss thought to herself.
"They'll find a way to get them out," the man with the knee wound said. "I just feel bad about the boy," the man continued.
The boy? What boy?
"I know, poor Hazelle."
Hazelle? Katniss's heart stopped. She dropped the cloth and turned to Bess and the other man.
"Did you say, Hazelle?"
"Yes," Bess said, shaking her head with a slight frown.
"What about her?"
"It's just so sad, after what happened to her husband…" Bess looked almost teary eyed.
"What's sad?" Her voice cracked, and Bess and the man she attended looked alarmed.
"We needed someone to go down the elevator shaft, to see what was broken." Katniss stared at the man wide eyed as he told her this. Why was he telling her this? she thought angrily. "Hazelle's son…he went down there."
Katniss stuffed the cloth she was using to wipe Mr. Jessup in his own hand and fled to the mine's entrance. He, and perhaps others, were calling her name, but the only name she heard was: Gale, Gale, Gale. It pounded in her ears with her heart.
When Katniss arrived at the entrance of the mine, several men were circled, discussing their options. Some looked heated, others nodded solemnly. Katniss didn't care if she wasn't included.
The men, most of whom were managers in the mine, looked at her strangely, but Mr. Tucker, knowing her, frowned and shook his head. "Katniss," he began, lifting his hand as if that, or anything, could keep her at bay.
"Where is he?"
"Katniss," he said again, like she needed to know her name.
"Where's Gale?" This time, she shouted.
Mr. Tucker left the others and took her aside. "Look, we didn't know there was any structural damage to the shaft, we thought that just a cable had snapped or the pulley gone off line…"
"Why are you telling me this?" Her voice was almost cracking.
"Gale volunteered to go down."
"How are we going to get him out?"
Mr. Tucker looked at her sadly and frowned. He knew how close she and Gale were. The few times he'd hired Gale for extra work, she was all the boy would talk about. He'd always smile and be reminded of when he was young and in love.
Today, he wasn't smiling. "Katniss, I've got forty men trapped down there that I know are alive."
"So?" Her eyes were wide and white.
"Katniss, Gale went down into an elevator shaft that collapsed."
She still didn't understand and she could see it.
"It collapsed on top of him. The chances that he survived…."
"There's still a chance!" she almost bit the air in front of her.
"There might be, but I've got forty other men." He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "I'm sorry. They're my first priority." He looked down and walked away, joining the other men trying to figure out what to do.
Katniss spun slowly, not sure what to make of the world, not understanding anything. She felt dizzy and nauseous and thought she might fall down and crumble. She couldn't shake the images from the nightmares she had after her dad died—gray clouds of dusty washing over her like hideous waves, she could almost taste the smoke and ash, feel the weight of the world falling in on her.
For Gale, these images weren't from memories or nightmares, they were his present. And she had to save him.
"Mr. Tucker!" she jogged back to him, interrupting his meeting. "What can I do?"
"To help Gale. Tell me what I can do…there has to be…something. You get your other men out, but I'm getting Gale."
"Katniss," he spoke calmly and with patience because he liked the boy too, and while the manager in him knew his duty was to all the other men, damn, if he didn't want to get Gale Hawthorne out too. He looked the young girl up and down, seeing she was serious. "You're serious?"
"Yes," she nodded her head fervently.
"Okay, come here," he lead her over to a small work station and showed her a map of the mine. "Here's the elevator shaft," he pointed to a line that shot straight down. "The men are all trapped below it," he pointed to the lines connection to the shaft, "and Gale," he exhaled sharply, considering what verb tense to use—the conditional? Might be? Could be? One look at the girl's eyes told him there was no point speaking in what ifs. "He's trapped above it. This shaft is useless now, there's no going back down it, we'll just risk destabilizing it more, crushing Gale. And the only other exit is on this side," He pointed to the other side of the elevator, the side that was being blocked by the downed equipment.
"So are we getting them out?" She tried not to let her voice tremble as she looked at the hopeless map. It didn't look like there were any options. "I mean, there aren't any…" She couldn't make herself actually say it.
"Crane," Mr. Tucker called over another man. He jogged over carrying a rolled up piece of parchment and flattened it before them. "This is an old map to the abandoned parts of the mine."
Katniss's eyes looked at the vast and cavernous image before her. It reminded her of the skeleton of a monster. It horrified her.
"This," Mr. Tucker said, "is an old passage," he flipped back to the first map. The passage was very near to the place all the men were locked in. "The men can use this passage to get over to the other exit," he flipped back to the old map. Katniss nodded her head excitedly. "Only they don't know it's there. They aren't thinking about going deeper into the mine to get out." Katniss followed his finger and saw that that's what they'd have to do to get out.
"Okay." This meant they could get out, right? This was good?
"You're still serious about helping?"
"Yes," Katniss said automatically.
"Okay," he said, flipping back to the old map. "This," he pointed, "is an air shaft into the old mine," her eyes followed his finger deep down into the mine. The air shaft was deep and far from the old passage the men would have to go through. "And the air shaft is very tiny, none of my men will fit through it." He lifted his eyes from the map to her. She stood uncomprehending for a second and then she understood.
He wanted her to go down it—to crawl down into the depths of the mine that killed her father.
The only thing that terrified her more than going down into those mines was the idea of losing the only other man she'd ever loved to them.